Presented with the extreme title “John Tucker Must Die,” you initially can hope that a teen flick in the vein of that great black comedy “Heathers” might be in store.
Instead, you’re treated to a dose of the cutes, but the movie still is a cut above the typical adolescent farce. For teenage girls, there’s a quartet of likable young women who bond in a positive fashion rather than cat-fighting their way through cinematic high school cliches.
As a bonus, girls also get to see Jesse Metcalfe, Eva Longoria’s gardening hunk on “Desperate Housewives,” shirtless and even dressed in nothing but a thong, while for the guys who are dragged along to the movie, that quartet of young women is very, very easy on the eyes.
Director Betty Thomas and screenwriter Jeff Lowell refreshingly sidestep the gross-out gags that litter most youth comedies. Though the movie strays deep and often into saccharine country, the filmmakers treat the characters with more respect than teen protagonists normally get in Hollywood.
Metcalfe stars as John Tucker, the captain of the basketball team, the hottest guy in school and, through meticulous scheduling, a youth blessed with three girlfriends unaware their man is triple-timing them.
On John’s hook are head cheerleader Heather (pop singer Ashanti), academic and extracurricular overachiever Carrie (Arielle Kebbel) and vegan animal-rights activist Beth (Sophia Bush).
All have been chosen by John because they belong to different cliques, and so are unlikely ever to speak to one another. But when the truth comes out, the three conspire with a misfit school newcomer, Kate (Brittany Snow), to take revenge on John.
After initial ploys backfire, they hit on the ideal payback: Make John fall hard for Kate, then have her break his heart.
Kate’s lived an itinerant life with her single mom (Jenny McCarthy — yes, the former Playmate of the Year as mother to a teenager), who packs up and moves the household after her fleeting relationships with men inevitably end badly.
Never in one place long enough to connect with people, Kate’s thrilled to have a circle of friends, even if it’s a gang of teen harpies playing Henry Higgins to her Eliza Doolittle to make her more attractive to John.
Predictably, the romantic sparks misfire, with Kate torn between a growing crush on John and feelings for his cool but generally unnoticed younger brother (Penn Badgley).
Screenwriter Lowell’s background in TV comedy is obvious throughout. The humor in “John Tucker Must Die” is sitcommy and episodic, quick sight gags and an overload of dialogue delivered breathlessly fast to disguise the fact that most of it’s not funny.
Likewise, the actors mostly project as though they’re in a sitcom, a little too over-the-top, a little too stiff and stylized. But Snow, Ashanti, Kebbel and Bush’s characters all have distinctly perky personalities that blend well together.
Thomas (“Doctor Dolittle,” “The Brady Bunch Movie”) maintains a pace brisk enough that even for parents forced to take their kids to see “John Tucker Must Die,” the pain will be over quickly.